War, peace collide in sermons

Many churches oppose Iraq action, and ministers say so.

With leaders of US churches speaking openly against a war with Iraq, you'd think peace would be a common theme in pulpits.

But what goes on in front of the pews is often more complicated than a statement from higher-ups. A majority of Americans favor going to war, including some clergy. And no matter how local religious leaders feel about an attack, they frequently have to preach to congregations that are split on the issue. Worship services might include an entire sermon in opposition of the war, or simply offer prayers for diplomats and the military.

As the government's decision about an invasion draws near, though, mainstream clergy are facing increasing pressure from peers and congregants to provide more guidance - to offer a moral framework for judging war.

"The religious community is just starting to find its voice on this," says Donald Miller, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. "I think there's a growing momentum, because I'm seeing it on the ground in Los Angeles."

The chorus of opposition from churches began last fall, when talk of war with Iraq started to increase.

Among those speaking out against an attack, especially a preemptive one, are the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches. Leaders of other faiths are also opposed. And even evangelical Protestants are divided, with some taking a stand in favor of an attack, and others expressing concern over it.

Local clergy may still be figuring out how best to address the issue, but some national church leaders are boldly using TV and newspaper ads to reach more than just the faithful.

"That's where modern sermons are preached ... in places not simply enclosed in stained glass," says Bob Edgar, General-secretary of the National Council of Churches, which recently launched TV ads encouraging people to give the inspections time to work.

Dr. Edgar attributes the difference between the view of the churches and that of a majority of the public to fear created by Sept. 11, which made Americans feel vulnerable. But people of faith shouldn't give up, he argues.

"Those of us who have a different view from the majority have to work harder and in a more sophisticated way to get our voices heard," he says.

Despite the mixed messages coming from the pulpits, the religious community is offering more opposition more quickly than it did during the Gulf War, or during US involvement in Vietnam. Today's leaders say they've learned they have to weigh in before the casualties begin.

How that message plays out in places of worship can depend on the ideology of members and how the clergy views the issue. Many churches, synagogues, and mosques are addressing peace in sermons and public events. And yet some local churches are staying relatively mum on the subject.

"Catholic churches [in my community] are not talking about war or antiwar. I think they are afraid to talk about it, afraid the parishioners won't give their money in the churches if they have different opinions," says Sister Sandra Lyons, a Reading, Pa., nun who, along with other Catholics in the state, is frustrated with the lack of discussion.

The Catholic Church is outspoken in opposition to invading Iraq, but not in Lyons' community. She says that the clergy should at least state the church's criteria for when war is justified.

Pastor Carl Beavers of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jackson, Wy., is doing just that: He outlines the "just war" criteria and lets people in his skiing community make up their own minds. "The issue is whether or not innocent people are threatened. That's the only reason to go to war," he says.

Still, not everyone wants to hear about peace. At Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a couple of families of the 530-member congregation left last fall because of the church's antiwar sermons and letter-writing campaign.

Reverend David Ensign says not everyone who disagreed decided to leave. Nor did the departures diminish his resolve. "Our fundamental calling as people of faith is to be makers of peace, and that's a very public calling. If we don't speak out in times like these, then we concede the field to those who are willing to speak," he says.

Other faith leaders are also approaching the issue in their sermons. Peace is often preached in mosques, as it is an underlying precept of Islam, which views war as something to be used only in cases of self-defense. In the Jewish community, a war is greeted with ambivalence. There is concern for the loss of Iraqi and US lives, but an awareness of the threat Hussein poses to Israel.

"The Jewish tradition does not begin with the presumption of pacifism as being the greatest good. It appreciates that there are times where war is perhaps not the best choice but the only choice," says Michael Siegel, the senior rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. He is preparing a sermon explaining how the Torah supports a preemptive strike if it is for defensive reasons.

The rabbi sees religion playing an important role in helping people clarify their position on war.

"What I believe is vitally important is that people not make ethical decisions based upon the thinking of the day, or the passions of the moment," he says, "but rather that they avail themselves of their faith traditions."

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